Seen on Broadway: A Day in the Death of Joe Egg is back, as hilariously sad, as bitterly funny as ever. It’s one of the best British plays of the 1960s and time has done nothing to erase its power. In this revival, which the Roundabout Theatre Company has brought from the West End, Eddie Izzard and Victoria Hamilton are Bri and Sheila, a thirtysomething couple whose only child, a 10-year-old girl named Jo, suffers from multiple disabilities, leaving her, in Sheila’s resigned words, "a living parsnip." Playwright Peter Nichols probes how they cope, on a daily basis, with the unthinkable, inventing personalities for Jo and making hilarious comedy out of their encounters with a cruel and insensitive medical establishment. (The long first-act sequence, in which they recount Jo’s birth and its aftermath is played so inventively that you’ll swear that Izzard and Hamilton are making it up.) Underneath the laughter, a marriage is falling apart. Joe Egg is unique--a compassionate black comedy, a sad story told with such insight that its powers to amuse and devastate are totally intertwined. The stars receive first-rate support from Michael Gaston as a wealthy meddler, Margaret Colin as his shallow wife, Dana Ivey as Bri’s clueless, malicious mother, and little Madeleine Martin as Jo. Es Devlin’s living-room setting is a distinctive piece of design work, expertly detailing Bri and Sheila’s lower-middle-class Bohemian lifestyle. The set’s low ceiling poses a challenge for LD Adam Silverman, who brilliantly uses frontlight to emphasize the play’s presentational scenes. Devlin’s costumes are very well-judged, as well; the outfits worn by Hamilton and Colin reveal volumes about the social gulf between their characters and Ivey is a riot in her dowdy old-lady costume, bewigged by Paul Huntley. A Day in the Death of Joe Egg is, hands down, the best revival of the season, and, as of today, Izzard and Hamilton will be the names to beat when acting awards are handed out.
A Day in the Death of Joe Egg photo: Joan Marcus
In musical theatre, there are good flops and bad flops. Dance of the Vampires was a good flop--lavishly nutty, stupendously vulgar, a massive mistake carried out to the nth degree. No such luck with Urban Cowboy, which is your average, ordinary flop. Based on the John Travolta film about a bunch of losers who work the Houston oil rigs by day and hit the bars at night, it’s total dud. The book strips away the film’s romance, sex appeal, and local color, leaving a vulgar sex comedy filled with flat jokes about cow testicles and suicide as marriage counseling. There’s no reason to care about the romantic leads, Bud and Sissy (played by Matt Cavenaugh and Jenn Colella) and their on-again, off-again romance. There are far too many routine musical numbers that explain the story to death. Cavenaugh and Colella are sweet, attractive performers, but neither one is ready to assume the lead in a musical. Those indestructible pros Leo Burmester and Sally Mayes do what they can with a subplot about Bud’s uncle and aunt. With the exception of Melinda Roy’s repetitive choreography--she has a lot to learn about building a dance number to a big finish--the production has a high professional gloss, which only serves to emphasize the poverty of the material. James Noone’s effective setting uses an industrial framework and projections (Elaine McCarthy consulted) to suggest numerous locations; it’s not pretty, but it shouldn’t be. Natasha Katz, working with an exposed onstage lighting rig, gives it everything she’s got, with floods of super-saturated colors, sharply defined beam angles, and blatantly theatrical cues; if it’s a little vulgar, it’s just what’s called for. There’s nothing particularly 1980 about Ellis Tillman’s costumes, and his array of trashy black mini-skirts for the mourners in a funeral scene provides one of the few moments of perverse amusement. Peter Fitzgerald’s sound design is loud and hollow. Urban Cowboy has earned a lot of attention for announcing its closing after four performances, then the producers surprise decision to stay open. They had it right the first time. --David Barbour
Seen on Broadway: On April 1, I saw The Play What I Wrote. If anybody had fun with this show, it must have been set and costume designer Alice Power. The play in question is not really a play at all, but a shambles of a comedy based on a popular British television show paying homage to the double act of Morecambe and Wise, starring Hamish McCall and Sean Foley. There is also a mystery guest star. Roger Moore, Kevin Kline, and Ralph Fiennes have all played this role, but the word "mystery" must refer to why these actors are on this stage. Although Roger Moore looked rather fetching in a French revolution-era dress, and he carried off his bit of the nonsense with his usual class. But back to Alice Power; her costumes range from breakaway suits to a "stiff" pink duvet with head pillows attached to the actor’s heads with elastic. The sets and props are clever, and include everything from pop-up palm trees to framed pictures which zip up and down the walls. There is also a giant furry dog--well, at least his head and paws that appear from behind the curtain--a cartoonish version of the Bastille prison full of skeletons attached to the walls, and a guillotine. LD Tim Mitchell desn't really have a chance to show off his talent with this one, as the lighting is pretty standard fare. Simon Baker designed the sound on behalf of Autograph, and in his favor, the speech is certainly clear. Some of the jokes are fleetingly funny, like the term "Brave Without Words" referring to a speechless Native American, and I’m sure that McCall and Foley have their following--somewhere. For me, it was just a bad April Fool’s joke. --Ellen Lampert-Gréaux
The Play What I Wrote
Seen at the Movies: Neil Jordan’s The Good Thief, starring Nick Nolte as gambler, heistmeister, and on-again, off-again heroin addict Bob, is an entertaining, terrific-looking bauble, set in Nice and Monte Carlo. It’s a loose remake of Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1955 Bob le Flambeur, but the mood here is very different: rueful caper with some mannered French New Wave touches rather than poetic noir. There isn’t much to the movie, really, and the dueling-heist plot can get a bit dense, but there’s a dazzling collection of character faces on hand--Tcheky Karyo, Emir Kusturica, and most notably, Nolte--and Chris Menges’ cinematography is a constant source of pleasure. Roving now jitteringly, now elegantly through the seedy neon-lit vice dens of Nice and the posh casinos of Monte Carlo (all captured beautifully in Anthony Pratt’s production design), the camera is sensitively attuned to Bob’s world, and even allows him a moment of apotheosis in the Cote d’Azur sunlight. Costume designers Penny Rose and John Norster expertly chart the character’s evolution from rumpled prints to the most dapper of high-rolling threads, but the biggest credit for the transformation has to go to Nolte, who easily encapsulates all of Bob’s facets.
The Good Thief photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Levity stars Billy Bob Thornton in a long white fright wig. Have you ever noticed that actors with very little hair of their own (think John Malkovich) really dig the baroque coiffures? Anyway, the movie, written and directed by Ed Solomon, is an icky tale of redemption, grace, and all those other uplifting standbys. Thornton is Manual Jordan, an ex-con who wants to make amends to the sister of the boy he killed years before; Holly Hunter, who gives her customarily vivid and alert performance, is the sister; Morgan Freeman is the shady pastor who takes in Manual (that spelling!); and Kirsten Dunst is the troubled teen Manual tries to help. Roger Deakins shot this gloppy mess, and does succeed in giving it an austerely lit and framed visual style; trying to make the Montreal location look like the rough side of Anytown, USA, production designer Francois Seguin is less successful. The costumes are by Marie-Sylvie Deveau. The movie’s credits include a thank you to Pat Boone.
Levity photo: Jonathan Wenk/Sony Pictures Classics
The New Director/New Films series continues this weekend, wrapping up at MOMA’s Gramercy Theatre Sunday. Closing offerings include Todd Graff’s Camp, a Fame-like look at musical theatre camp; Roberto Torre’s Angela, about a Sicilian Mafia wife; Tareque Maud’s The Clay Bird, which was the first film submitted for Academy Award consideration from Bangladesh; and Hukkle, a Hungarian film, directed by Gyorgy Palfi, whose title translates as hiccups. The latter is said to be a technical tour de force with notable cinematography by Gergely Poharnok. For more information, go to www.filmlinc.com. --John Calhoun
Camp photo: IFC Films
Seen at Lincoln Center: New York City Opera’s new production of Mark Adamo’s Little Women (based on the novel by Louisa May Alcott) is a mystery to me. Acclaimed by the critics, it has very good storytelling (well, consider the source) and the leading little woman, Jo, is wonderfully sung by Jennifer Dudley. She is convincing as a woman caught in a painful triangle with Laurie, the young man who loves her, and her sister Amy, who loves Laurie from afar and wins his love in the end as Jo realizes the consequences of her headstrong actions. The mystery is in the design of the production, especially from a company that is willing to take real risks and mount bold, daring productions. While well-designed, it is simply too dark. The scenery, which is primarily black with sparse dark furniture, is by Peter Harrison, who started with the interesting concept of using black panels that open and close in various patterns to reveal the family members against a lighter upstage backdrop, or frame one character. There is also a turntable with a few forlorn park benches, and the opening and closing scenes take place in the attic of the Marsh household (where I would have added more attic-like props just for fun, but there doesn’t seem to be too much of that allowed here). Given that the action takes place in a middle-class home in New England, I would be surprised if the decor was too modern or too colorful, especially in light of Beth’s tragic demise. But a little color would have been food for the eyes. Paul Tazewell’s costumes are also in a rather monotone palette, from white to black by way of gray; even poor Meg marries in her gray frock from Act I, with just a white veil to denote her bridal attire. Amy Appleyard’s lighting is effective in pulling the characters out from the blackness, although, once again, I would have gone for more intensity at times. I imagine the production was based on an intentional decision: to frame the story in a somber gray world, but I think the opera would work better in somewhat livelier surroundings. --ELG
Little Women photo: Carol Rosegg
Seen at Circle in the Square: Yasmina Reza’s play Life (x) 3 is perplexing, to say the least. Reza is still riding high on the success of Art, but this work does not have the same clarity. In Life (x) 3 two couples relive the same disastrous evening three times; it's like the film Groundhog Day, except that they never get it right. This concept was also used in Michael Frayn’s Tony Award-winning play, Copenhagen, although in that play the subject was the problem of uncertainty regarding an historic meeting, rather than two couples getting progressively tipsy on Sancerre in a Paris apartment. Directed by Matthew Warchus (who also directed Art), the production is n the round, with Mark Thompson’s set on a turntable covered with a circular red-and-white rug that resembles the Target logo). The apartment’s furnishings include a brown leather Mies van der Rohe daybed, alluding to a certain sophistication on the part of the occupants. There is also a semi-circular gray sofa that hugs a round coffee table; the floor under the table is littered with toys. LD Hugh Vanstone was faced with the challenge of a set in the round that rotates for each of the three scenes. One solution is the placement of three identical banks of lights, one each in a different position, to add a soft purple glow to the sofa in each of its three positions. He also uses green lasers, from Laser Production Services for the Visual Arts, to create the four "corners" of the room at the start of the play and between the scenes, as white beams of light pulsate and music indicates the passage of time, or, in this case, rewinding of time. Thompson’s costumes for the two women are appropriately French, with Helen Hunt wearing first a bathrobe then black slacks with a low-cut lacy black blouse, and Linda Emond in a Chanel-style taupe suit. Christopher Cronin’s soundtrack includes the whining and crying of the offstage six-year-old who eventually quiets down to the sounds of The Fox and The Hounds. And, contrary to some of the reviews, the actors seem well-cast, especially John Turturro and Hunt as the younger couple; they do their best to breathe life into the play. --ELG
Life (x) 3
Seen in Princeton: I just made a second visit to the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, NJ, this season to see a new play, Fiction, by Stephen Dietz, and it was worth the train trip. The play focuses on the degree to which a married couple, both writers, are honest in both their lives and their writing. The action takes place in the present as well as through a series of flashbacks over many years, from the time the couple first met in a Paris cafe through their respective visits to a writer’s colony. Directed by David Warren, the production is a series of vignettes on a set designed by James M. Youmans, who had to solve the problem of multiple locales in rapid-fire succession. His solution is a series of panels that slide on and off or fly in and out within the framework of three blue portals. The Paris cafe, for example, is a frosted window with a curved art-nouveau frame. The upstage wall continually changes color, to help signify the change of location. This is done via Don Holder’s lighting design, which adds texture and color to the set. The costumes by David Woolard are contemporary, the kind of clothes you might find in Princeton or another college town. Yet he clearly dresses each of the two women in the play in her own style with Laila Robbins as the more conservative Linda in slacks and sweaters, and Marianne Hagan as the younger Abby in flowered skirts. John Gromada created the original music and sound design that also helps frame the production. Dietz is an interesting writer, and one of his strong points in Fiction is that the plot is never predictable and takes several totally unexpected turns as he proves that there can be just a slender thread between truth and fiction. --ELG
Fiction photo: T. Charles Erickson